The son who came home for the Fourth of July

Last week Nadia McCaffrey defied President Bush by allowing the media to view the coffin of her son, Patrick, killed in action in Iraq. Andrew Buncombe was invited to attend his funeral in Tracy, California

The Independent

03 July 2004

The photographs of Patrick McCaffrey laid out on the table at the front of the reception hall were the record of a life cut short. There were pictures of Patrick as a young boy, a head of curly brown hair, posing in his judo outfit. There was one of him dressed to play American football and another, taken a few years later, of Patrick wearing a tuxedo and probably heading out to the high school prom. There was one of him with his family - a wife, a little girl and a son so proud that his father was a member of the California National Guard that he had asked for his own set of dog-tags.

Finally there was a photograph of Patrick with his unit in Iraq. It had been taken shortly before the ambush in which Patrick was killed. In the picture he is laughing with his friends. He was 34-years-old and - according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website - the 848th American soldier to die in Iraq.

"He was the life-saver in the unit," said Joyce Kilzono, one of several hundred friends attending the memorial reception, as she pointed at the photograph. "He looked after the others. That man there is my brother-in-law. He had been dehydrated and Patrick had been looking after him. He was caring for people right up until the end." Mrs Kilzono lowered her voice, turned and added: "There are a lot of us Americans who do not agree with what is going on over there."

There was nothing especially unusual about the death of Patrick McCaffrey - nothing about the attack on 22 June that killed him and a colleague to make the incident stand out from the hundreds of others in which young men from across the US have died amid the chaos in Iraq over the past 16 months.

Except, that is, that Patrick's mother, Nadia, is adamant her son's death shall not have been worthless. Her insistence that people be made aware of the situation in Iraq and the continuing stream of Iraqi and American casualties, this week placed her on a fast-track collision path with an administration that would rather the public only saw certain images from President George Bush's so-called war on terror.

When her son's body was flown to Sacramento international airport, she allowed - but did not invite, she insists - the media to attend. "I'm just hurt that my son's life is gone and they should stop what they're doing," she told the reporters, banned by Mr Bush from covering the return of military coffins to US Air Force bases. She said she planned to set up a group for the mothers of dead soldiers opposed to the war. And in recent days, when it came time to remember Patrick publicly, Mrs McCaffrey again wanted to share with people stories about her wonderful son.

She wanted to tell everyone about his infectious smile and his humour, his kindness to strangers and his devotion to his family. "My goal is to pass on Patrick's message, why and how he died," she told her hometown paper, the Tracy Press. "Try to talk about this and stop it. Enough war."

"He was overwhelmed by the hatred there for Americans and Europeans," she told another reporter. "He was so ashamed by the prisoner abuse scandal. He even sent me an e-mail to tell me that not all the soldiers were like that. He said we had no business in Iraq and should not be there. Even so, he wanted to be a good soldier."

On a bright, sunny Thursday morning, at a memorial chapel in the small, neat town of Tracy, about 60 miles east of San Francisco, around 350 of Patrick's friends and relatives, many of them in uniform, came together to pay their respects and to remember him. Mrs McCaffrey invited The Independent to attend.

It was a day for two different narratives. For the military it was a chance to remember Patrick with full military honours, for a three-gun salute, to posthumously award him the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. It was an opportunity to sour the air with the regimental bagpipes and to insist - whatever his mother may have felt - that his death had not been in vain.

"What Patrick was doing was good and right and noble," said Paul Harris, chaplain of the 579th Engineer Battalion, of which Patrick was a member. "The good deeds he was doing will far outlive him. There are thousands, no, millions, of Iraqis who are grateful for his sacrifice."

Major General Thomas Eres, a tall, grey-haired adjutant general of California, had been sent by the Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to tell Patrick's family that his death in Iraq had come while fighting for a noble cause. There was no shame in that, he said, turning to Patrick's young widow, Silvia. "You can be very proud of him."

Governor Schwarzenegger sent his condolences, said the general, apparently unaware of the irony that the man who had spent most of his Hollywood career posing as an action hero was now the commander of America's largest National Guard unit and was sending messages of sympathy to those who had died in action rather than just on screen. There were hymns and prayers and brief eulogies from Patrick's friends from Alpha Company, who were resplendent in their green ceremonial uniforms, all with closely-cropped hair, many fighting back tears. Sergeant Michael Sundita, a thick-set young man, could barely get his words out. "Patrick had it all," he said.

It was announced that by order of the President of the United States, Patrick was to be posthumously promoted to sergeant and he would receive the Bronze Star for valour and the Purple Heart for wounds received in battle. It was the only reference all day to Mr Bush. He has not attended the funerals of any of the 860 or more US soldiers who have now been killed in Iraq.

And then Patrick was remembered with a three-gun salute, the honour guard standing in the doorway of the chapel. Everyone was asked to stand and either salute or else place their hand on their hearts.

Whose heart did not jump as the first volley was fired - echoing around the chapel? As the honour guard reloaded, one could hear the empty cartridge shells fall to the floor and roll. A baby started screaming. People wept as the second and third shots were fired. A prayer was read and then everyone filed outside into the sunshine, hugging Patrick's mother and father, Robert - the couple divorced but very much together on this morning.

Later that day, 20 miles west across the sun-scorched Californian hills, Patrick was again remembered by his friends. This occasion was less formal, a reception where people sat at tables, eating salad and corn and cold meat from plastic plates while young children not old enough to understand ran playfully around the tables - young, uninhibited life among the grief. At one point Patrick's nine-year-old son walked past, the silver dog-tag bouncing on his chest.

At this reception, where photographs of Patrick were laid on a table at the front of the reception hall next to his newly awarded medals, there was no talk of noble causes and of grateful Iraqis, of widows who should content themselves with the stiffly-folded Stars and Stripes flag that had covered the coffin. Indeed, not only was there no sign of Mr Bush but neither of the two-star general, who could have come straight from the stanzas of a Wilfred Owen poem.

Instead it was up to Patrick's friends, his work colleagues, the mothers of his friends, to remember the young man who had lost his life thousands of miles from his home. Patrick had never planned on going to Iraq, they said. He had been eager to join the National Guard in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001 and was happy enough to do the training. He had hoped the extra money would pay for his children, Patrick Jnr and Janessa, to have the university education on which he had missed out.

But he had also thought about the Iraqi children, said his friends. When he left for Iraq in March he took with him a specially-made T-shirt with a picture of his children on the front and of Iraqi children on the back. "I'm going for my children and for these children as well," it read.

Marlene Cather, the manager of the car body repair shop in Palo Alto where Patrick had worked for 10 years, picked up a microphone placed at the front of the hall and remembered a young man with the best people skills in the shop. "That is why we put him at the 'meet and greet desk' near the door," she said.

Betty Bussell, mother of Patrick's schoolfriend Jim, remembered him and the other boys coming round to her house to watch sport on television. "He used to call me Mrs Bus," she laughed. She said she always thought of Patrick when she remembered that name. A woman called Grace who walked with a stick said she was certain that Patrick was present. "We have lost a young man but we have a special angel up in heaven," she said.

The afternoon wore on, plates were cleared from tables, and then Patrick's mother got up from her seat and walked to the front of the hall.

Nadia McCaffrey knew a thing or two about death. By her own reckoning she had almost died on three occasions - the first when she was a seven-year-old child in her native France and was bitten by a poisonous snake and the most recent just five years ago, when she had a fever that raged and raged and would not pass. Her near-death experiences, as she called them, helped her in her non-profit work with local hospices and people suffering from terminal illnesses. But nothing had readied Mrs McCaffrey for the death of her only child in Iraq.

She picked up the microphone, paused, looked around at the people in front of her, holding their gaze. "I'm looking at you all now and I cannot believe it. It's going to take a very long time," she said. "The last time I saw Patrick was on Father's Day. They had set up a web camera on the internet and I could see Patrick. I had to move away because I did not want him to see me crying. I knew at that instant that I would not see Patrick again." She continued: "Patrick was glowing that day. Watching him was overwhelming. The joy that was radiating from him - his face had an aura." Mrs McCaffrey said she had been given another picture of Patrick taken just an hour before he was ambushed in the city of Balad, 85 miles north of Baghdad. He died when his body armour failed to stop the volley of bullets that struck him in the chest.

In that picture, his mother said, Patrick is standing in his humvee, holding in his hand a bunch of wild flowers that had been given to him by some Iraqi children.

"He had the same smile on this face. That was one of the very last pictures. It was taken a very short time before his death," she said. "Patrick was at peace. Patrick was at total peace."

The memorial to Patrick McCaffrey was nearly complete. To conclude the day - prior to his burial on Friday morning near his wife's family's home in Oceanside - friends and family were asked to step outside for a toast.

For the adults there were shots of whiskey, Patrick's favourite drink and a reference to his Irish heritage, while the children were given yellow balloons, filled with helium. The toast was made, the whiskey hit the backs of their throats and the children let go of the balloons. They quickly rose into the sky, dozens of soaring bright flashes of colour caught by the breeze.

Within moments they were gone.